"Hello?" Dawn said cheerfully into the receiver, half expecting to hear Liz's voice.
"Dawn? Is that you?"
She shifted the phone against her ear, taking a moment to recognize the voice.
She glanced around to make sure the coast was clear before responding. "Randall?"
"Yes. It's me. Can we talk?"
"Is everything alright?" He was taking quite the risk calling her.
"Y-yes. Well, not quite. It's just that… Um... I mean..." he let out a long drawn out sigh and Dawn was immediately concerned.
"Nothing's happened. I was wondering... I was wondering if we might be able to meet?"
"Uh..." She remembered her date with Liz. "Yeah, I think I can. I was already planning to go to the library. I'll just cancel Liz and not tell Buffy. Usual place?"
"Actually..." there was a pause, as if he were nervous about saying what he wanted. "If possible, can we meet at my hotel room?” He rushed to add, “I'll understand if it's too forward of me."
"Are you okay? You sound... I don't know, kinda weird?"
"I... I'm fine, really. It's nothing. I just wanted to talk." There was a long pause. “Nevermind,” he continued with a patently false cheeriness. “It's okay. I shouldn't have called. Everything's fine with the report, don't worry about that! It's just that, well…” His voice became sad. “ I guess maybe that I'm a bit lonely here.”
Dawn took a moment to consider his unusual tone. His stuttering sounded more like Giles than Randall. And though she didn't know him that well yet, she could tell something wasn't right with her new friend. He sounded like he really needed her. And if Dawn prided herself on anything, it was being there for her friends.
She pulled out her Lord of the Rings notepad and sparkle pen. "What's the address?"
A slim wood-like form raised a wispy branch of an arm and pointed at Willow . In a gentle voice, she said, "It's her."
“No, it's not," Willow said, putting on as innocent a face as possible and shaking it from side to side. "Whatever 'it' is, ‘it's' not me."
"Way to go Will," Xander said. "'Just one simple spell' and you've gone and conjured up the Haunted Forest from the Wizard of Oz. Just give them your red Sketchers, and we can get back to a place called home."
"Xander." Willow spoke warningly.
"I'm just sayin'." Xander quickly fell silent when a large shimmering form joined the woman, easily towering over them all. As the creature straightened slowly to its full height, Xander raised his head to stare upwards. "Uh oh, Toto, I don't think we're in Whispering Pines anymore."
Completely ignoring Xander's nervous chatter, the creature studied Willow . He then turned to the woman next to him. His voice came out in a low rumble, like the distant thunder of an immense waterfall. "Are you sure?"
"Yes," the Dryad answered. "I can feel her energy from here. She senses the connection; she understands."
Xander looked at Willow , expecting to find his friend returning a confused gaze. Instead, Willow 's arms were back at her sides and her eyes were fixed on the woman before her.
"Hey Will?" Xander whispered. "You okay?"
Willow remained silent. Xander grew worried as he watched her nod, almost hypnotically, without even turning to look at him. He looked from Willow to the woman and then back again, now convinced the lady, however striking, was working some kind of mojo on Will. Xander kept his arms raised and tried to nonchalantly slide over to Willow 's side. "Will?"
Willow 's hand shot up, palm outward in a "hold off" silent command. Xander froze. "It's okay, Xander. They're not here to harm us," Willow said. “She's just showing me where the energies are off in the woods.”
Xander was unconvinced, but remained quiet, watching Willow 's face for any sign of pain or alarm.
“We need your help,” the woman said. “You've sensed it. You can't deny it. I can feel the alarm within you.”
“Sensed what?” Xander whispered.
“Shh,” Willow said curtly.
“Please. There's not much time. We are all affected,” Persephone said. She raised a leg to show them. It looked as if it was rotting. “And poor Landon's family is in grave danger.”
Willow glanced around at the other Dryads. There had to be about fifteen or so. Knowing Dryads were normally solitary creatures unless a threat to their forest presented itself, the numbers amassed before her told her the situation was dire. "Take us there,” Willow said. “We'll do whatever we can."
"Take us where?" Xander asked, annoyed. "And so help me Will, if you say 'to see the Wizard,' I'm so gonna kick your little Wiccan butt."
"Xander," she admonished, finally turning to him. "I was right. There is something terribly wrong here. Something's endangering the forest. It's threatening the very balance of nature. These people," she paused and corrected herself at Xander's raised eyebrows, "these creatures, live here. They are inexplicably tied to the environment. And what harm comes to it, eventually comes to them.” Willow pointed to the Dryad's disfigured limb and the large Nix's discolored arm. “Someone's been polluting the area. If we let it continue, it will kill them."
"Please,” the large watery man asked. “Our families are very sick." He gestured to the other watery forms beside him.
Xander turned, unable to miss the concern and fear in the being's voice, despite the intimidating volume.
"We have to help them, Xander,” Willow said. “I just know we didn't end up here by accident."
Xander turned to his Willow , and he knew he couldn't refuse her. He only hoped that however they were going to help, they didn't wind up doing more harm then good.
"Fine Will, but without magic. Unless there's no other way." Willow 's face scrunched in offense, but softened under Xander's apologetic gaze. "Please Will, you know things are kinda off now. We were only here to try one simple spell. Something tells me that if these creatures' lives are threatened then a little bitty grounding litmus test spell is not going to do the trick. Work with me here, okay?"
Willow still frowned, but conceded. "Okay."
Just then the larger watery form wavered, leaning to the side as if struck by a wave. A painful groan rumbled from him.
"Landon, what is it?" Persephone asked, alarmed.
Landon groaned again and then wavered to the other side. His fluid features melded into a look of horror. "Oh heavens no," he cried. "It's Aegles; she's dying."
Persephone looked to Willow in horror. "Please. Aegles is his youngest, his only daughter. We must hurry."
Willow 's eyes pleaded with Xander.
"Right. Let's go," Xander said, suddenly all business.
Persephone's eyes radiated gratitude, despite the worry filling the rest of her face. “Follow us,” she said. She turned and disappeared instantly into the trees. Landon and the others followed. Luckily, Xander and Willow could still see the large Nix, for the wooden creatures seemed to travel at light speed from tree to tree, root to root. They snatched up their bags and quickly followed.
Buffy planned to spend all day in her room and let the disasters come to her. She was reorganizing her closet when she heard the heavy thumping from somewhere downstairs. Sighing, she looked at her reflection. “I know that can't be opportunity knocking, so it must be the surprise mayhem I ordered. Time to face the horror.”
Buffy stepped out of her room and listened carefully as she made her way downstairs. Something was wrong, she just knew it. Though it was in the middle of the day, the shadows seemed different, stretching long and dark, painting the walls with a sober tone. It was almost as if the atmosphere of the house was changing as she continued on. The familiar characteristics she'd come to recognize and take comfort in were shifting before her eyes, so subtly that only the keen eye of the Slayer would notice. She tried her best to shrug it off but her instincts were abuzz with warning signals. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end, her nerves were electric, ready to strike out at what lay hidden within the light of day.
It was ridiculous, a Slayer being afraid in her own home. But if Buffy had learned anything from her years as the Chosen One, it was that anything was possible this day.
She moved on, rounding the corner and heading to the kitchen. Just as she reached the door, she heard a thump from beyond the door. She froze.
“Giles? Is that you?” she whispered softly.
Buffy quietly stepped away from the door, glancing behind her as she'd taught herself to do from years of watching horror films with Xander. Another thump sounded from the kitchen. Buffy shuffled backwards, eyes darting around the hallway for the nearest weapon. There was no sign of any. No stakes, no swords, nothing. She couldn't even give the beast a paper cut. The house was impeccably tidy, which only served to strengthen her conviction that something was amiss.
The last bit of confidence in her mind hollered out that she was her best weapon. She'd survived every birthday on the Hellmouth: she could survive whatever this little town threw at her.
Buffy made her way to the front door. A smear of black swiftly passed out of the corner of her eye. Buffy's eyes shot over toward the window. “Are you outside now, demon?” She meant to quip with Slayer confidence, but the question sounded weak even to her own ears.
She twisted the knob and pulled the front door back, relieved to see that there were no monsters either frolicking or hiding in the bright sunshine. As her foot moved forward, a shadow rose from beneath her and she bound backwards in a panic.
"I'm sorry! I'm so sorry. I didn't know anyone was home."
Buffy looked up, eyes wide with shock, as a mass of flowers seemed to come to life in front of her. They moved quickly to and fro, and she took a defensive posture against them, preparing to lash out.
“Are you Buffy Summers?” the flowers asked. With a start, Buffy focused on the smiling face of a young delivery man behind the colorful bouquet.
"Ms. Summers? Happy Birthday! Boy, this is the the biggest bouquet I've ever delivered!” He shifted the flowers to his other arm. “And boy are they heavy.”
“Oh! Sorry!” Buffy reached out and took the bouquet from him easily. She turned and put the vase on the floor behind her. It dominated the hall.
“Oh, thank you. Here, please sign here. I really didn't want to leave this on the doorstep so I checked one of the back doors to see if it would be ok to leave it there. I knocked. No one answered so I figured I'd leave it up front. Initial here too, please.”
Buffy completed the form as he continued, “Such a huge order. It's from some law firm in California . I can't imagine them being so nice. I mean having two strikes against them, being lawyers and from California both.” He checked her signature. "Okay, thank you then. Happy Birthday!" He tipped his hat and headed in down the front path.
"Yeah, right!" She took some deep breaths, trying to calm her drumming heart. Shaking her head, she went back inside to deal with the flowers and to see if her father had managed to dictate a personal note to his secretary or if it would be another generic ‘best wishes.' Slipping as she struggled to pick them up, she cursed.
”That's it, I'm going back to bed!”
The door opened quickly at her knock, and Randall offered her a half-hearted smile. "Thank you for coming."
"You sounded kinda... well, I wasn't doing anything important so wah-lah, room service." Dawn handed him a shake-like drink topped with whip cream and chocolate sprinkles. "This is sure to put a smile on your face. A real one. Not that pitiful thing you have there."
Randall's eyes perked up with her kind gesture and she suddenly felt like it was the most right thing in the world for her to be there for him at that moment.
"It's very sweet of you to come." He smiled, much more genuinely. “I don't know what to say.“
"How about 'Come In'?"
"I'm sorry, I don't know where my mind is at the moment. Please do come in."
"Hey, this isn't too bad." Dawn smiled as Ethan stood aside to allow her entry.
"Actually, it's quite an improvement from what I'm used too." Ethan watched fondly as Dawn walked past him, inquisitively inspecting the small space of his hotel room. "And it is quite cozy."
"Cool, you like candles?" She picked up the one of the many small votive candles decorating the room and gave it a quick sniff. She promptly jerked her head back with revulsion. "What is this supposed to be? Stinky cheese smell?"
"It's for meditation purposes." Ethan closed the door and came up from behind her, reaching his arm around to recover his candle. He snickered, "and I would prefer it if you would not to fondle my Frangipanni." As his fingers brushed hers, a jolt of energy ran through him. He felt his head swirl as her power seized him.
Dawn smiled, released her hold on the candle and gave a slight shrug as she moved away. "You know a lot about that stuff. Don't ya?"
Ethan knew she'd said something but he couldn't bring himself to comprehend or respond to it. His body was quivering under the influence of her delightfully innocent contact.
"But I bet you don't know what's engraved on this bracelet you gave me." She smiled sheepishly, proudly displaying his gift on her wrist, waiting for him to respond. He didn't.
"Randall?" Dawn glanced back curiously. "You okay?"
Ethan shook his head to clear it and his face relaxed, lips curling back into a satisfied smile. "I'm sorry Dawn. Now that you're here, I've never been better."
Willow and Xander finally caught up to the Dryad at the edge of the grove where all of the creatures were silently observing a small clearing near a brook. The woman held her hand up, signaling for caution. Willow and Xander quietly made their way up to the woman's side, doing their best to suppress their labored breathing. Even the watery creature had moved impossibly fast for his size and bulk.
As Willow peered around a large tree trunk, she saw a large industrial flat bed truck, large sides created out of wooden guards attached to metal poles. On it were stacked about eight to ten large metal barrels. They were darkly painted, some rusting out at the edges and faded orange warning signs on the side. Despite the faded colors, the warning was unmistakable: TOXIC.
Xander tapped Willow 's shoulder, silently directing her attention to the brook. There she saw two men laboring as they carried a similar barrel to the edge of the brook. They set it down with a loud thud on the ground and one man pulled out a crowbar. He began working up the lid slowly around the top. To their right lay an already-empty barrel on its side, the remnants of some thick dark liquid, dripping into the water and following the rest of it down the stream.
At a muffled sound of pain next to her, Willow turned to find the large watery creature leaning to one side again.
The woman explained, “They've already done much damage. The man-made substance has already found its way down stream and is slowly poisoning the Nixes. That was only one barrel.”
“If we don't stop them, they'll all die,” the Dryad whispered.
Willow turned to Xander. “We've got to do something.”
Xander paused and then his face seemed to change instantly, from confusion to determination. “Right. This is what we'll do. Will, you think you can undo the damage that's already been done? You were talking about trying to tap into the balance of nature. Think you can tap in and do a little patch up work?”
“Yeah,” she said, forcing her voice to be confident, but her doubts were still there. She straightened her shoulders. “I have to.”
Xander gave her a supportive squeeze of her shoulder. “Good.” Then he turned to Persephone. “All right. Can you and your friends help distract these guys? I think if we can keep them from dumping any more of this garbage, Will should be able to clean up the damage that's already been done.”
Persephone looked to the other Dryads and then turned back to Xander, determination in her eyes. “Yes,” she said.
“But how?” Willow asked.
“ Haven't gotten that far yet, Will.”
“Wait,” Willow said. “Dryads and Nixes do not live separate and apart from nature as most humans, right? I mean, you're basically nature itself.”
Persephone nodded, with a smile at the young witch's instincts.
“What are you getting at, Will?” Xander asked, confused.
“Well, back in England at the Coven, I learned how everything's really just one living thing. Life is all connected; we're all one. Most humans can't really grasp that or get in touch with that connectedness. But Giles said I was a natural, and the Coven helped me practice my focus.”
“Yes,” the woman said. “That is what drew me to you. I sensed your energy from across the woods.”
Willow smiled. “Yes, and that's how I knew something was out of whack.”
”Will,” Xander said, looking from the two guys who were almost done opening the barrel, “we don't have much time.”
”Right,” Will said, speeding up. “Well, as part of nature, you have more immediate and stronger control over it. You can manipulate it to your will. So with the Dryads and Nixes at your side, Xander, you basically have an army of the forest and water at your back.”
“Ahh,” Xander said, a smile creeping across his face as realization dawned. “I think I'm catching on now Will.”
”Great,” Willow said, turning back to Persephone and Landon. “You all help Xander stop these two. I'll get to work on trying to restore the balance to the ground and water.”
Landon looked upon her, still skeptical.
Willow looked up at him and said, with as much certainty as she could muster. “I can do it.”
She felt a hand on her shoulder, and then heard Xander say to the creature, "You can trust her. As a Wicca, she's the best.”
Willow felt a surge of confidence flow from Xander's hand through her body and down to her feet, initiating the connection with the earth. She looked over and smiled her thanks.
“Our families' lives are in your hands, little one,” Landon said.
Willow nodded and watched as Xander led the group to a circle. He and Persephone began giving out instructions.
As the army of nature began taking up positions around the men, Willow sat down, took out her bag, and began setting up what she needed for the containment spell. If she could create a field to attract and hold the non-natural elements, she could draw the contaminants out of the earth and water and into a quarantined area. She should be able to hold it there long enough for them to get the authorities and a clean up crew out here to finish off the job.
She closed her eyes and began to concentrate.